By Emily Duren
The moments leading up to the abduction of Maria Ridulph read like something out of a movie script. December 3, 1957 was the first day it had snowed that season in Sycamore, Illinois. After dinner, 7-year-old Maria asked to go outside and play with her friend, 8-year-old Kathy Sigman (now Chapman). They were playing a game where they tried to dodge the headlights of oncoming cars, when a man, who said he was 24, pulled up and asked them if they liked dolls, or wanted piggyback rides. He was blond with a high voice and big teeth. He called himself “Johnny.” In a town of only 7,000—smaller than our student body—Kathy couldn’t recall ever seeing him before.
Johnny gave Maria a piggyback ride, and then when he was done, she ran over to her house to get a doll, leaving Kathy and Johnny outside. He asked Kathy if she wanted to go for a walk, but she declined. Then he told her she was pretty. Which is creepy as hell, by the way. When Maria came back, Kathy went back to her house to get her mittens. She asked Maria to come with her, but she wouldn’t. That was the last time Kathy ever saw Maria. When she came back, there was no sign of Maria or Johnny. Maria’s body wouldn’t be found until almost five months later, 120 miles from Sycamore.
One suspect in Maria’s murder was 18-year-old John Tessier (later known as Jack McCullough), of Sycamore, Illinois. His alibi was that he was in Rockford, Illinois, approximately 40 miles away from Sycamore, enlisting in the Air Force, on the night of the murder. This was verified via FBI interviews with recruiting officers who remember seeing Tessier at the time he claimed to be there. By all accounts, it was a fairly impenetrable alibi. Tessier also said he made a collect call from a phone booth in Rockford, to the Tessier home in Sycamore, at 6:57 p.m., 15 minutes after when Maria was believed to have been abducted. Phone records show that the operator took a call from a man who gave his name as “John Tassier.” In spite of this, Tessier was given a lie detector test, and passed. A week after Maria’s abduction, Tessier was cleared as a suspect. And then the case went cold. For five decades.
Unfortunately for Tessier, 1957 wouldn’t be the last time he heard the name Maria Ridulph. It also wouldn’t be his last brush with tragedy. Or the law. After serving in the Air Force for 13 years, Tessier retired and became a police officer. He eventually settled in Washington state and had two children.
In 1982, Tessier took in a 15-year-old runaway named Michelle Weinman, and her friend. Weinman says he was nice enough at first, but then he started giving her goodnight kisses, which eventually escalated to massages. Then came the night he sexually assaulted her. Though Tessier still maintains he didn’t do it, he was initially charged with statutory rape and eventually pled guilty to communication with a minor for immoral purposes. He also resigned from the police force. After the conviction, John Tessier changed his name to Jack McCullough, saying he wanted to honor his mother, Eileen, McCullough Cherry.
In 2005, McCullough’s 34-year-old daughter, Christine, was reported missing. She had last been seen in a motel with her boyfriend. Her body was eventually found in a drainage ditch of a Texas golf course. However, due to extreme decomposition, she wouldn’t be identified until 2013. The case is being treated as a murder, and McCullough says he was in Washington at the time Christine went missing.
In 2012, one of McCullough’s half-sisters, Jeanne Tessier, also accused him of gang raping her in 1962. Every one of these columns has had an extremely bizarre plot twist, and for this case, it’s Jeanne Tessier. Tessier claims that McCullough used to molest her, as well as other girls in their neighborhood, but when she was 14, he took it to a new extreme. One night, she says, McCullough pulled up to their house in a Corvette and Tessier asked for a ride. He took her to a second location and raped her before three other young men she didn’t know showed up, and McCullough said they could rape her, too— only two of them did. Tessier couldn’t describe them. Ultimately, McCullough was acquitted of the rape charge after the judge in his bench trial decided that 50 years had been too long and that Jeanne Tessier’s story could not be corroborated. Illinois does have a statute of limitations on rape, but when McCullough left Illinois to move to Washington, it prevented the statute from taking effect, thus making his arrest possible at any time This wasn’t a big win for McCullough, though. Considering he also had a first degree murder charge hanging over his head. Yeah. After 54 years, Jack McCullough was arrested for a murder he had been cleared of.
To fully understand how and why this happened, we need to back up a bit. So when McCullough’s mother was on her deathbed, his other half sister, Janet Tessier, claims that McCullough’s mother was like, “Yo guys, guess what? Jack killed Maria. Bye.” McCullough’s youngest sister, Mary Pat, claims she was also in the room to hear this confession, but the two testimonies conflicted. From 1994-2008, Janet Tessier tried to get police to take a second look at her brother as a possible suspect, but they wouldn’t because there has never been any DNA to match McCullough, and because the mother’s confession is completely inadmissible in court. I mean, really, you might as well call Casper the Friendly Ghost as a witness.
Regardless, police decided to show a photo lineup to Kathy Chapman to see if she’d pick McCullough out. So, they took five photos out of the high school yearbook from Sycamore, but his picture was missing. Authorities then reached out to Jan Edwards, an ex-girlfriend of McCullough, to see if she could provide them with a photo of McCullough from around the time of the murder. The photo provided them with more than they’d hoped for. Not only did they get a great photo, but when they opened up the frame a train ticket fell out. It was for Dec. 2, 1957 and it hadn’t been punched, meaning that McCullough hadn’t gotten on the train to Rockford that night. They said even if he went to Rockford, he must have done so a different way—they suspected he drove himself. This means he could have killed Maria. Kathy Chapman was shown the photo lineup and identified McCullough, resulting in a charge of 1st degree murder. Ridulph’s body was also exhumed not long after, and for the first time a cause of death was able to be determined: she was stabbed in the throat at least three times. Someone stabbed a 7-year-old. In the throat.
In September of 2012, McCullough went to trial for Ridulph’s murder. In my opinion, their case was shoddy at best. They had:
Chapman’s identification through the photo lineup: As I said previously, the other five photos were yearbook photos, with light colored backgrounds, the men in suits, looking off to the left. In McCullough’s photo, he’s dressed slightly more casual, in front of a very dark background, looking straight into the camera. I saw the lineup, and I felt like he wanted to murder me. It’s not necessarily that the photo by itself evokes feelings of fear, but it’s prejudicial when put next to the others. Which is exactly why this practice has since been outlawed in Illinois. Also, how strong do we think Chapman’s memory is after 53 years? I know I just fought for eyewitness testimony in the Grim Sleeper column last week, so I’m going to be the first one to call myself out. But hear me out. There’s a HUGE difference, in my opinion, between the memory from an 8-year-old, that spends 53 years decaying, than that of a grown woman who was viciously attacked by a man, was confronted by him again, and only had to keep the memory for half that time before going to trial.
Inconsistent inmate testimony: So, you wanna hear a joke? An inmate said that McCullough told him that he killed Maria Ridulph; he took her after giving her a piggyback ride, when Kathy Chapman went into her house to get her mittens. Then he changed his story and said McCullough told him he killed her by choking her with a wire, and this was used as part of the trial, even though we know that isn’t how she was killed. A second inmate testified and said McCullough told him that he’d simply slipped during the piggyback ride, and it was “an accident.” So, he says McCullough took her into his house and choked her. Then he too, a convicted home invader by the way, changed his story. He also went with the wire story.
The other childhood friend: There was another friend who testified that at some point before Maria’s murder, she had also been offered a piggyback ride by a man named “Johnny,” and was able to identify him as McCullough. Solid evidence, you guys. Solid evidence.
Jack McCullough was convicted of 1st degree murder and given a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 20 years.
But wait, there’s more. I first heard about this case this past week because the State’s Attorney in Dekalb County, Illinois wanted Jack McCullough to be released from prison. He says there’s no way that McCullough could have murdered Maria Ridulph, based on the fact of the phone call that came from Rockford that night, as well as the timeline given by the witnesses. McCullough had a hearing on Tuesday, March 29, and he hoped that he’d be a free man at the end of the day, but that was not the case.
“An Illinois judge declined on Friday to free the man convicted of murder in one of the nation’s oldest cold cases, even though the prosecution and defense agree Jack Daniel McCullough is ‘demonstrably innocent.’ Judge William Brady said the situation is so unusual he needs more guidance on what to do — and more time to review the facts and the law. He asked McCullough’s attorneys to clarify in writing how the law would apply to their client’s case and told them to return to court on April 15,” according to CNN.
So, I’m sitting here once again, asking myself the same question I ask myself every week. Do I think Jack McCullough is innocent? I just don’t know, but I’m leaning toward yes. The only thing that makes me question his innocence is his past regarding sexual assault. However, when I started writing this column, I vowed to stay objective, and for me to do that in this case, I have to keep telling myself that the murder and the sexual assaults aren’t even connected. So objectively, yes, he’s most likely innocent. Logistically, it makes sense that he’s innocent. They have the proof that he was in Rockford, which is a smoking gun for the defense. As we know, you can’t be in two places at once. Oh, how much easier life would be.
If McCullough is innocent, this is truly a travesty, and he should be released immediately. But alas, that’s not how our laws work. This is a miscarriage of justice the size of which I’ve only seen a handful of times before. That being said, I have massive respect for the Dekalb County SA for admitting the state made a mistake, and I hope that the SA’s office will wholeheartedly continue to pursue justice for Maria Ridulph.
Emily Duren can be reached at email@example.com